President Vladimir Putin held his annual televised Q&A session with the Russian people on June 15, fielding questions from around the country and handing out justice and boons like a good tsar of yore. He played to the gallery, dealing mainly with problems faced by normal Russians, with half an eye on the 2018 presidential elections he is widely expected to win.
“Certainly, one day I will make up my mind. I don’t see anything bad in sharing my preferences [about the future president of Russia]. But ultimately let’s not forget that only the voters, Russian citizens, can determine who will lead,” Putin said evasively before the end of the four-hour session, when asked who the next president will be.
These TV spectaculars became a big part of Putin’s branding by the Kremlin since he first came to power in 2000. He reportedly prepared intensively for 48 hours and the millions of questions sent in by email are carefully screened and preselected. The event is largely empty of substance but the show is worth watching as it is the clearest statement of how Putin wants himself to be seen, what projects he is interested in, and how he wants to distance himself to some extent from the government, which is failing to lift the standard of living in the current phase of the crisis.
As usual Putin kicked off with a round-up of the good macroeconomic news. And there was good news to report this year, as inflation fell to the 4% target of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) and economic growth has returned, albeit anaemically.
He also boasted about the improving demographic situation. The average life expectancy in Russia is up to 72 years from the catastrophic low of 56 in the 90s. And after shrinking drastically in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the national population has been growing over the last three years.
But that good news is about to run out, as the 90s demographic dent works its way through and the population zenith has just passed: the natural increase in the population reversed and shrank by 37,702 in January-April and the birth rate is now falling again – a worrying comment on the pain that regular Russians are feeling now.
Putin also took a swipe at the US where the Senate on June 13 appproved new sanctions for Russia to punish it for interfering with the recent presidential elections.
“Why now?” asked Putin. “If it hadn’t been Crimea they’d have come up with another reason to contain Russia.”
Putin has successfully introduced a fortress mentality meme, arguing “they have always been against us”, which plays very well with his blue collar core supporters. In classic Putin fashion he responded to questions on ex-FBI director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate, in which he claimed that Russia hacked the US elections, by offering him political asylum in Russia if he was “persecuted” like the other US “human rights fighter” Edward Snowden, who lives in Moscow now.
But on a more serious point he pointed again to the NGOs that are “pro-US” as an interference all world leaders dislike, according to Putin. “I talk to a lot of world leaders and they all complain about it in private. They don’t say anything in public because they don't want a fight with the US,” claimed Putin.
Statements like these are also a classic part of these sessions as the president is not above blatantly lying to plant anti-Western sentiment memes in the minds of average Russians. Last year, he claimed that the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung was owned by Goldman Sachs after it accused Putin of enriching his friends, as shown by the Panama Paper leaks. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov took the blame for the “mistake” the next day – but only after millions of Russians were infected with this idea.
This is a rich theme to mine and Putin clearly already has his eye on the upcoming 2018 presidential elections, theoretically the last time he can stand.
“We have been standing on our own two feet, despite the sanctions,” Putin said. “The history of Russia shows that we have been living under [foreign] sanctions since the moment Russia started rising and feeling strong. Every time our international partners see Russia becoming a serious competitor, some sort of restrictions are being introduced under various excuses.”
Sanctions have slowed Russian growth and stymied investment but the tit-for-tat Russian ban on European agricultural imports has also benefited local food producers and hurt European farmers. Putin claimed that Russia has lost $52bn from Western sanctions, but Western countries have lost over $100bn from Russian sanctions.
He said little about the debate currently being fought in the State Duma over a renewed reform policy. The one item that he did touch on here was the need to raise retirement ages. “It is being discussed but there is no decision yet,” said Putin.
“That’s a sure sign it will happen,” tweeted Iikka Korhonen, the chief economist at the central bank of Finland.
But the bulk of the four-hour session was meant for domestic consumption and dealt with local problems. One of the more embarrassing questions was from a teacher that wanted to know why their salaries were so low. Putin seemed to be caught off guard, saying the average teachers salary was RUB30,000 ($521). “I've never been paid more than RUB16,000!” the teacher in the Irkutsk region replied.
Part of the show – and it is a highly coordinated PR extravaganza – is the lambasting of failing governors to do their job and a chance for the people to “appeal to the tsar”, which is a centuries old tradition in Russia.
One lady in the sourthern Stavropol region complained to Putin that she had not received a RUB10,000 payment she was due after her house was damaged by flooding. “Where is the money?” Putin said in a question directed to the region’s governor Vladimir Vladimirov, roasting him in public in what has become a tradition in these call ins. “I hope the governor will pay you a visit today.”
That “I hope” comment may not be taken as an order but – like US President Donald Trump’s use of the same phrase to Comey over the Michael Flynn investigation – in Russia a governor would be ill-advised to ignore it. In previous years, a governor singled out for criticism like this has appeared at the scene of the grievance before the end of the call-in to fix the problem on live TV.
But a few things slipped through the cracks in this year’s production. In the call centre that would not look out of place in CNN's Atlanta headquarters, a ticker across the bottom of the screen was displaying unfiltered questions and comments being sent in by email.
“Three terms as president – enough!” one viewer wrote, which was not on message. The twitterati gleefully leapt on the snafu and the cut away to the correspondent and her ticker didn't appear again during the call-in.
Maybe the most substantive part of the call-in was Putin’s comments on Ukraine. He kicked off by talking about Viktor Medvedchuk, the former chief of staff of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and an eminence grise in Ukrainian politics. Putin and Medvedchuk are friends and Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s children. He has been acting as an unofficial mediator between the two governments, but Putin’s characterisation of him as as a Ukrainian nationalist has probably undermined his influence in Kyiv.
He also drummed in the sorry state that Ukraine is now in, implicitly warning Russians of the price that will be paid for a colour revolution in Russia. “In April, the average salary in Russia was $624. In Ukraine it is $251,” Putin claimed.
On the same day as the phone-in a poll was released by the Rating sociological institute that found 85% of respondents say Ukraine is in a state of chaos and 75% agree the country is in a state of collapse. Just over half (52%) say the Verkhovna Rada parliament should be dissolved and fresh elections held.
The population appear to be getting weary with the slow place of reforms under Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Putin took the opportunity to burn him, calling on Poroshenko to “close your offshore accounts”, a reference to the Pamana Paper leak that appeared to show the Ukrainian president avoiding tax by using offshore structures.
But Putin also waxed effusive on the structure of Ukraine, suggesting that the country should be federalised. This has been the Russian position from the start. While Kyiv has been decentralising its government to good effect, this is not the same as federalising, which would give considerable power to the regional leaders and, Kyiv fears, allow Russia to make even more mischief that it is doing already.